Coronavirus concerns at UWRF affect classroom instruction, study abroad

Posted March 12, 2020

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the UW-River Falls administration announced Monday that all study abroad trips scheduled for spring break are cancelled. Late Wednesday night Chancellor Dean Van Galen notified the UWRF community that all classes will be suspended March 16-20, the week before spring break. Following spring break all courses will move online from March 30 through April 10.

“I think the timing of getting it out last night was to try and get the information out to people as soon as possible,” said UWRF Provost David Travis. “The ramifications were students can start going home this weekend. No face-to-face classes, really no classes at all next week.”

According to Travis, “We wanted people to start being able to plan things right away. We know some students need to get picked up. We know some students need help packing to go home.” As Travis described the next few weeks, it’s “an extended spring break in a way for the students. Now the faculty and staff will be working next on getting their courses moved online.”

Some American universities gave short notice to students after announcing their campuses would shut down. Harvard University, for instance, gave all students a five-day period to pack up and leave campus, making no exceptions for students to remain.

According to Travis, UW-River Falls will not be following that method.

“We know we have students that need to stay here throughout the rest of the semester,” said Travis. “They’re international students. We have other students who simply have nowhere else to go. So, we will provide a place for them in the residence halls and provide some limited dining for those students who do not go home at all.”

According to Travis, “It’s just the vast majority of students will be going home and taking their course online from home.”

Colleges and universities across America have been announcing extensions to spring break or shifting all classes to online within two to three weeks. In the UW System, UW-River Falls joins UW-Madison, UW-Milwaukee and UW-Superior in shifting all in-person courses to online only. UW-Madison has shifted all courses online from March 23-April 10, while UW-Milwaukee and UW-Superior extended spring break an extra week, with all courses online after that.

In Van Galen’s university-wide email, the chancellor confirmed that UWRF will be open, although classes are not in session, from March 16-April 10. Residence halls and dining services will be open for students, faculty and staff. Faculty and staff are expected to be on campus March 16-20 to prepare courses to be moved online.

There had been heavy speculation among students at UWRF that, with a suspension in classes next week, the semester may be extended a week longer into May. However, that will not be the case.

“The plan is to stay on schedule and have our regular semester ending point, and do the best we can,” said Travis. “We certainly are not trying to pretend that we can provide the same quality education that we would do face to face online. But we are trying to do the best we can. We have great faculty and staff that are 100 percent committed to students and so, they will move as much as they can online and do the best they can to replicate what they can learn in the classroom.” According to Travis, “We are not planning to extend it, we are planning to have the same official ending point of the semester. We are planning to allow those students who are expecting to graduate this spring to graduate on time. We are not sure if we will have a commencement ceremony. If we do, it will be delayed.”

UW-River Falls joins other schools that have cancelled study abroad programs over spring break including UW-Madison, the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and Mankato State University.

“There were four study abroad trips. One was going to Austria, Switzerland and Germany, a second to Ghana, a third to the Netherlands, and the fourth to Belize,” according to Heidi Soneson, assistant vice chancellor of International Education.

Wes Chapin, associate vice chancellor for Academic Affairs and Graduate Studies, has been taking students enrolled in the German Politics course to Germany and Austria for several years.

“To try and meet the learning outcomes of the course, we do certain things consistently,” said Chapin. “Every time we go to Berlin, for example, and go to the Reichstag for the Bundestag tour and the German Historical Museum and the Deutscher Dom.

“This year the plan was to go to Munich, which has its own historical, cultural and political issues,” Chapin added. “It provides a very effective way to take students to the Dachau concentration camp. We were also going to spend a bit of time in Salzburg (Austria). Salzburg has a lot of historical and other value too. We try to rotate things around a little bit each year.

“Of course, there’s a lot of uncertainty with all of this, and it’s impossible to know definitively the best course of action,” said Chapin. “On the one hand you can go over there and end up with a lot of exposure and may not even know it until you get back. On the other hand, that can happen in our own backyard, too. This is not an issue that is in any way unique to study abroad, but there are obvious issues that arise if you are traveling overseas on an airplane, going through various customs.”

Cancellation of future trips will be determined by Travis, the provost. According to Soneson, ”the last information that we have from him is that the senior administration will be making a decision about May study abroad programs in early April, and summer programs in late April.”

UW-River Falls students have been studying overseas since late January. That includes students and faculty in the Experience Scotland and the International Traveling Classroom programs, as well as students conducting research in Semester Abroad Europe.

“For the current time the provost has decided that they will remain on their program, because those programs have long-term planning that allows for some flexibility should circumstances change and modifications could be made,” said Soneson.

“The plan has been, and still is, for them to stay where they are. We feel like it’s safer for them,” Travis said. “One of the things we are learning about this virus: The biggest mistake you can make is to travel more than necessary.”

According to Travis, “If you can limit travel to and from countries, what’s in their best interest is to remain where they are. We are not doing anything to make them feel like they should come home. We’re just trying to limit movement, as any movement increases risk.”